ƬΉΣ PӨIƧӨПΣD ΛПD ƬΉΣ PЦЯΣ

When No Help Came

Sablepaw nosed under a fern and pushed her way into the meadow, cautiously tasting the damp air. Another step was all it to immerse herself in the long grass. She couldn't smell anything but their fragrant, cloying scent. Perhaps that was just as well; if there was anything out there it probably wouldn't smell her either.

Twenty-six steps forward. Turn left. Five steps forward. Turn diagonally right. Twelve steps forward. Turn right, take a step. She'd memorised the route to the tunnel's entrance. The path she took was meant to be disorientating and seemingly random, but she knew where she was going.

The black she-cat arrived first, and with a wary glance at the swaying grass around her, swiftly turned and and crawled into the tunnel. It was dark and faintly musty, but she curled up a small distance away from the opening, resting her head on her paws to wait.

A minute passed and she yawned. She flicked her tail. She swiped her tongue over her jaws. She stretched. She waited, because for him, she'd wait forever and a day.

Fortunately it didn't come to that. Soon she saw his sleek grey head ease into the tunnel, followed by his broad shoulders.

"Smokepaw!" she called, purring. He crawled over to her; the tips of his ears brushed the top of the dirt cave.

"Hey," he greeted, brushing his muzzle with hers. "How was your assessment?"

"Fine, I think. I climbed up a tree and everything," she replied, patting the ground beside her. He took his cue and sat down with a wince. It was then that she saw the jagged gash on his chest. His familiar scent was punctuated with marigold and horsetail.

"Hey, what happened?' she whispered, grimacing.

"Nothing. The Tainted wanted to put up a fight, is all. She was hidden in a fox's den, can you believe it? Took me half the morning to find her."

Sablepaw smirked to herself. She'd taken little more than an hour. Granted, she probably wasn't supposed to have used Tallstorm's scent, but hey- it worked.

"Do you know what the next task is?" Sablepaw asked.

Smokepaw unsheathed his claws in silent reply, slashing at the air as if slicing an invisible enemy's throat.

"Oh yeah. That."

The grey tom pressed his fur against hers, a comforting rumble shaking his body."Sablepaw-"

"Saaaaaaablepaw," a smooth voice crooned. It was accompanied by a blast of warm, stinking breath in her face. Groaning, she recoiled, fuzzily blinking open her eyes.

Morningstar was crouched in front of her, smirking.

"Finally, Sablepaw. Sleep like the dead, you do."

Her sentence punctured with yawns, Sablepaw mumbled sleepily, "What'sitnow?" Her voice slurred.

Morningstar snorted at her. "Talk like one too. But anyway- it's time for assessment number two."

Putting her dappled tail to her mouth in a gesture of silence, she turned and crept out of the den. The apprentice followed, carefully weaving around the prone bodies of Charpaw and Streampaw.

The warm and fuzzy feeling her dream had left her with quickly evaporated in the damp morning air. To be precise, it was really more of a recollection of last night's illicit meeting, cruely interrupted by the vindictive leader herself. Sablepaw had hoped there would be a gap- days or moon, she wouldn't care- between the first assessment and the next.

Fighting. She wasn't abysmally horrible, but battle practice with Morningstar always left her limping back to camp with the gritty taste of the Thunderpath in her mouth.

Morningstar stopped in the middle of the grassy clearing, before a clump of apprentices and their mentors. Sablepaw slunk to the back of the group, flattening her chest fur with her tongue. Her pelt was mussed- and what if she still smelled of Smokepaw? Perhaps rolling in the sweet grass in the meadow had not been enough of a precaution.

The leader began to talk and Sablepaw craned her head to scent her side, running a few licks over her ribs. The elders' tales had instilled within her a paranoia; now, as deeply involved with Smokepaw as she was, she was in danger every second of her life. If the numerous stories were to be believed, the poison was spreading through her veins, corrupting her mind inch by tantalising inch. If it didn't kill her first, Morningstar certainly would.

"-so follow me now, and you will be able to pick your Tainted partner," Morningstar finished. Sablepaw swung her head around, wide-eyed, and registered that the group was moving off. The black she-cat trotted to catch up with Nettlepaw, who teased her for being half-asleep. All the same- albeit with an indulgent shake of her head- she repeated Morningstar's instructions.

"Well, we're going to the Tainted's camp, where the warriors will bring some out for us. We each can pick the one we want to fight and 'escort'- that was actually the word she used, as if they're some privileged visitor or something- anyway, escort them back to camp where we'll fight them to the death. It's oldest to youngest, so you'll be second to last. But we'll see how privileged they are when we rip out their throats, huh?"

Sablepaw felt her heart sinking. She wasn't sure whether her age was an advantage or a disadvantage, though she was inclined to think the latter. She'd have to sit through four matches before hers, growing more and more nervous, watching the successes and failures, trying to mentally note what to do and what to definitely not do...and all the while her Tainted would be watching too. Its peers' mistakes would only help it in the final, bloody climax of their battle.

Maybe, she thought, I'll be able to get the smallest, weakest one...if they haven't all died in that cave of course, or been used in the first task.

To distract herself, she let her eyes rove over the pelts of the other apprentices. Slatepaw looked calm and dignified; Strongpaw disgustingly excited; Nettlepaw, sleek and perfect; Pepperpaw, wearing an expressionless mask he could have only learnt from their father; Smokepaw...he too looked calm, but Sablepaw could see the tension crawling beneath his pelt, fear in the tip of his quivering tail. Even from here she could smell his familiar scent, infused with the tang of marigold.

Sablepaw looked at her father. He walked stiffly beside Morningstar. As if he had felt her gaze, he turned his head and gave her a small, confident nod. Be brave, it said. You'll be wonderful, it said. It said all the things he couldn't, but it meant nothing to her. If he couldn't tell her himself, in his warm and smooth voice, then the tiny flicker of movement was worthless.

Finally, she looked at Morningstar; the golden she-cat strolled along the path with a kind of careless swagger, jauntily swishing her long tail. Near its end, it sported a small, red scab where there had once been a tawny spot.

At long last, the small group emerged out of the forest. It was very early in the morning; the sky was a pale indigo and smattered with stars. The horizon was stained a faint pink, and tendrils of red clouds drifted above the hills. Sablepaw smothered a yawn and shot a glare at her mentor's golden back. Why in StarClan had they been dragged out of their beds before the sun had even risen?

"Oi, you lot, stay here!" Morningstar instructed. She and the other warriors crawled into the cave, where distinctive, plaintive shrieks could be heard.

The apprentices milled around the edge of the forest. Nettlepaw muttered enviously about Sablepaw's advantage- after all, she'd visited the city and fought a real Tainted for herself. The black she-cat only rolled her eyes and didn't bother to comment about how it had ended with being hit by a monster.

It didn't seem to matter anymore- it had happened moons ago. Once, in Sablepaw's fever dreams, she walked right up to the hulking Tainted tom and stuck her claws into his throat. He had choked, fallen and died, and with him, so did her fear. Sure, monsters still terrified her, but she had no reason to cower at the memory of a dead cat.

Sablepaw began to vigorously groom her pelt as the minutes passed. The older cats seemed in no hurry to usher the Tainted up to the surface. Perhaps they had followed Morningstar's bloodthirsty lead and were 'taunting' the prisoners. It was certainly not beneath them.

They reappeared soon after the sun had risen over the distant hills. Three warriors appeared first, forming a loose ring around the emerging Tainted. They took small, mincing steps, flinching as they shuffled into light brighter than anything they had known for moons. Their scabs had become scars, but they had fresh wounds scattered across their pelts.

Together with the rest of the apprentices, Sablepaw jostled to get a good view. Strongpaw had gotten there first; with an imperial flick of his tail he shouted, "That one! That one's mine!" while pointing at a trembling grey tom. A frayed blue collar hung from his neck, the bell tinkling weakly as he quivered. With a mixture of disgust and shock, she saw that he had no claws.

"First come first served," Morningstar called, gliding serenely out of the cave with Thornstreak at her heels.

Nettlepaw was the next to pick her Tainted, a blue-grey tabby she-cat who had more bones than flesh. Slatepaw's was a large ginger tom, and Pepperpaw chose an equally large brown she-cat.

Sablepaw scanned the huddled mass of Tainted. Most were bigger than she was, despite their prolonged starvation.

"Hurry up, Sablepaw," Strongpaw snapped; he was rigorously sheathing and unsheathing his claws, tearing up the Greenleaf grass beneath his paws.

She grumbled under her breath, craning her neck to get a better look at the cats in the middle of the group.

There were three cats roughly her size; a kittish looking tabby tom, a dirty white she-cat, and a young grey tabby, her eyes wide and very blue.

For the first time in days, she was scared. She crouched low against the ground, ears flattened to the back of her head, and inwardly pleaded for the ground beneath her to open up like a gaping maw and swallow her whole.

For days, she'd quietly scratched away at the hole in the wall, feeling brave enough to dart in and snatch the prey that the cats of PureClan threw them. She'd made herself a permanent nest in the dark corner, framing the edges of her 'territory' with whatever bones she could scrounge up. The hole had grown, and so had her hope...until the warriors had burst into the cave with maniacal laughs, claws flashing in the weak light. They hadn't seemed to see her in the dark, and for a few minutes she had truly thought that she would be safe.

Her delusion was shattered when a pale grey tabby tom had herded her out of the cave and into the huddle of terrified cats. Smaller ones-apprentices- had singled some of them out at leisure, for the next round in their sick and twisted blood game.

"That one," a smooth young voice said, and she felt eyes on her felt. Slowly, she raised her gaze; she stared into a pair of amber eyes, dark and sympathetic and knowing. She recognized his grey fur, his pine-and-green-grass scent.

No. Hadn't she told him to run? Had he been a part of PureClan all along? She turned her head slightly; yes, there stood the black one, with bright, empty eyes and a slight look of shock twisting her muzzle.

You should've run, she thought, lowering her head and hunching her shoulders. Then, maybe, I wouldn't have had to die.

"Sablepaw?" a vice asked. The black she-cat jerked her head at a young brown tabby tom, who squeaked as a 'warrior' shoved him out of the crowd. Then she too felt a push at her back. She tumbled out of the group and climbed to her paws, spitting dirt out of her mouth. The grey tom moved towards her, commanding loudly, "Follow me."

She did so silently, fixing her eyes on his sloping shoulders as they dipped and swayed with every step. The other prisoners fell into line behind her; she couldn't help but feel a martyr.

Will I be the first to die? She felt a stab of terror at the prospect. She hadn't spent moons in a reeking hole to be killed in a reckless show of bravado, to be the first example of Tainted death.

A dark tabby shouldered roughly past her, stalking behind a golden she-cat. The stub of his tail was eerily familiar; his scent induced a wave of panic. She vividly remembered him, and how he had ripped the throat out of his own companion. He'd called him a brother.

The young she-cat flinched away, nose accidentally hitting the grey tom's tail. Then she remembered her promise, her silent vow. She could taste it; ashes and dust and blood and copper.

Summoning up her last scraps of confidence, she let out a dramatic wail and collapsed onto her side. Someone tripped over her limp body.

"What? What is it, is it dead, Thornstreak?" a she-cat asked. Peering up through slitted eyes, she saw it was the golden she-cat, looking impatient. She pushed the tabby tom- evidently her go-to henchman- towards her, mouthing obscenities under her breath.

The grey tabby froze as the warrior neared her, sinking into a crouch to poke at her ribs, her belly and throat. He opened his mouth, turned his head, started to say something that would never leave his mouth.

She saw her chance, and like one of the legless scaled snakes on her housefolk's black box, she struck. Using the muscles she had developed clawing at the wall, she pushed herself off the ground and onto Thornstreak. He fell with a snarl, but she had already bared her teeth. She lowered her head, and sunk her teeth into his throat. Before she could clench and twist and rip, a heavy shape bowled into her and knocked her off her prey- the young grey tom.

"Run," he mouthed, lashing his tail in desperation, crouching over Thornstreak and tensing his muscles as if to spring. Without a word she compiled, a breeze brushing over her pelt as he leapt and landed inches from her tail.

She pelted through the forest, past the dark cave that had swallowed her without complaint moons ago, a hysterical laugh bubbling in her throat, threatening to choke her. Paws thundered behind her, but she easily raced out of their reach.

Trees flashed by in her peripheral vision and branches lashed at her face, but she decided it didn't matter if it was the price of her freedom.

So I didn't need help, she thought, and smiled grimly as she ran.

Heeey, long time no update-io. Well a) I was procrastinating, as per usual b)I've been working on some new story ideas inspired by a narrative we had to write for English (Mine was three pages over the three page limit, yay!) and c) homework and stuff. Oh, and d) was that I was doing the 100-oneshot-challenge, the first chapter of which is up and posted if anyone wants to read it.

Now, as to the people who are sending me cats via review. Sorry, but I can't accept them as that would make the story interactive or something. I do actually have enough cats now, but I have a forum post where people can send in cats. By now, I'd probably only accepted rogues and Tainted, but that's still an option. And don't worry, I do have all their names worked out. Mostly.

-Swyfte

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